Diane Mayr and Sarah Priestman

Diane Mayr
[Digital collage. “Woman in White” by Aristide Maillol, circa 1890-1891, courtesy The Athenaeum. Quote by Washington Irving.]

Sarah Priestman
In Remembrance: Shall We Dance?
Inspiration piece

This is the day most children fear. Here I stand, 58 years old, but on this day I am my mother’s child. This is a day most children fear because we don’t want to lose mom. Mommy. Mama. Mother. We begin needing her, then wanting her, then loving her, and then we grow up, develop our ambivalences toward her – we all do this, it’s just a part of leaving the nest — and can spend the rest of our lives balancing these: need, want, love, ambivalence, love, need, want. When we are lucky, we eventually find this balance, and all that remains is the love. I am lucky. My mom made it easy to find the love. And that’s why we’re here today: to honor and celebrate Evelyn Priestman, whose love touched us all.

My mom had it tough as a kid. She was born with crossed eyes, and endured a number of surgeries to align them, followed by many attempts to correct her vision. Maybe these months of bandaged eyes and faulty glasses were where she developed a sense of difference, of not caring what the world thought, of wanting more than the status quo. Because, by the time she met her husband shortly after the end of WW2, she had already labored in an airplane factory and translated French documents for the lend-lease program as one of the first employees in the Pentagon. She was ready for a family. Always wanted six kids, and had three. And here, I believe she would say, is where the fun really began.

My mom loved raising her kids. She and my father did not have to put the family first, it was just always the first thing. My sister, Mary, has a beautiful singing voice, and as a student was constantly performing in choirs and community theater. My mother loved to hear Mary sing, and it usually made her cry. One Saturday not long after Mary started college at the New York College of Music, my mom and I went to see The Sound of Music. I was ten. When I gaped at her crying during Climb Every Mountain, she whispered “She sounds just like Mary.” And the tears flowed.

Another thing that flowed at my mom’s house was musicals. My mother loved them all and danced to them all: Her favorites were Shall We Dance, from The King and I, when she’d position any child who was nearby to do the large sashing steps of Yul Brenner around the living room. Marry the Man Today, from Guys and Dolls, whose lyric, “You musn’t squeeze the melon till you get the melon home,” she always drawled out, the inner Adelaide coming forth. And, of course, the dialogue in Fiddler’s Do You Love Me, where she’d sing both parts, stepping from one side of the coffee table to the other.

It wasn’t just musicals. She adored all things swing: Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, The Mills Brothers. She and my dad danced to their swing era albums at the drop of a hat. Our living room was a dance floor, a stage, and a back stage for the skits that kids put on in the dining room.

Kids were always over. First, they came over to put on plays, whack the whiffle ball on our homemade diamond in the back yard or play endless games of badminton. And of course, in the winter, pile into our VW van and go sledding, my mom careening down the huge hills as fast as any of the kids. Then, as high school began, my mom told our friends they could sleep over anytime, hang out anytime, get a ride home anytime.

She was such a fan of my brother’s high school motley soccer team that she asked me, just this May, about Coach Petrilli, a name I’d forgotten long ago. I recently attended my 40th high school reunion. The memories of knowing you could always go to Mrs. Priestman’s house was one of the things people remembered, four decades later.

She’d wanted to be a reading teacher, but it wasn’t to be. Mom, don’t worry about it. You touched the lives of kids in a way that some teachers never will.

Once their three kids were out of the house, my mom and dad had an opportunity to move here, to Center Moriches. It was 1974, and my dad’s company was opening an office nearby, so they came. My dad retired soon after they moved here. My mom and dad spent the next 30 years enjoying a marriage that was already full of companionship, laughs, and wisdom – and now they had the time to truly enjoy one another. They enjoyed the beach, long walks, reading, some short trips. It was a great time.

And, she started another chapter in her life: volunteering. The new Center Moriches Library? It’s funded, in part, through the profits from bus trips to NYC that my mom organized ten times a year for 10-15 years. She also tromped through snow and bore the heat of August, delivering food through Meals on Wheels.

My parents had always wanted a grandchild, but fate had other ideas. They enjoyed the neighborhood kids and made peace with it. And then, in 1998, I told them I was heading to China to bring home a baby girl. And her name, like my mom’s, would be Evelyn.

They met Evie at Islip McArthur a few nights before Christmas in 1999. This little baby, just 16 pounds, filled their house with love. We were able to visit my folks every couple of months, so over the next five years my mom and Evie read together, drew together, danced together, walked together. They played in the ocean waves. They went crabbing and fishing. They cooked. I called them “My Evelyns,” and they rolled their eyes at me and laughed.

After my dad died, my mom where was able to visit us and go to Evie’s concerts and games. These are good memories.

Yes, there were tough times. We lost my brother, a pain no mother should ever have to endure. Money was always tight. Too tight. She was accepting when life took a wrong turn, but did not hold back her anger when she sensed life’s needless cruelty. I respect that.

My mom was honest, funny and smart. She was a good writer, a terrible cook, a talented gardener, and proud to be a lousy housekeeper. She was strong. She was loving. She was one of a kind, and she will be missed. None of us want to lose our moms, but here we are. We lose, and we remember.

Mom, I will miss you, yes. But when I hear Yul Brenner ask the world’s most important question, “Shall we dance?” I will answer as you would have – yes, yes – and will remember the joy and love and laughs you brought to everyone.

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